SCIENCE
09/17/2014 08:43 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2014

So Much For Religious People Being More Righteous

So much for religious people being more righteous than non-believers.

Sure-to-be-controversial new research shows that religious and non-religious people are equally likely to misbehave. The only difference between the groups is that religious people show stronger emotional reactions to moral and immoral deeds.

“To our knowledge, it’s the first study that directly assesses how morality plays out in people’s everyday lived experience,” Dr. Linda Skitka, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the co-author of a paper describing the research, said in a written statement.

For the study, a team of researchers, led by psychologist Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Cologne in Cologne, Germany, recruited 1,252 men and women between the ages of 18 and 68. The study participants, all of whom were from the U.S. or Canada, completed an initial survey to indicate their level of religiosity -- from "not at all" to "very much." The survey also showed where the men and women fell on the political spectrum, from "very liberal" to "very conservative."

Next, the subjects received surveys via text message five times a day for three days. In these surveys, the men and women described any moral and immoral acts they had committed, witnessed, been the target of, or heard about within the past hour -- examples included "I gave a homeless man an extra sandwich that I had," or "I caught my teenage son looking at hard core porn." For each act, they described what had happened and how they had felt about it.

What did the researchers find? Religious and non-religious people alike reported experiencing around the same number of moral acts. Furthermore, no difference was found between liberals and conservatives. People reported committing good deeds more often than bad ones, and reported hearing about bad deeds more often than good ones.

The researchers also found that people who benefited from good deeds often "paid them forward," doing something good for someone else later on.

The only differences between the religious and non-religious people included how they felt about and described moral acts. Religious people were more likely to express pride over performing moral acts, gratefulness over benefitting from moral acts, and guilt and disgust over immoral ones. Conservatives and liberals differed in the kinds of moral acts that they focused on.

"Liberals more often mention moral phenomena related to fairness and honesty," co-author Dan Wisneski, a psychology professor at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, N.J., told LiveScience. "Conservatives more often mention moral phenomena related to loyalty and disloyalty or sanctity and degradation."

While these findings may provide a small peek into how moral we all are, psychologists hope to use more smartphone surveys to learn more about how we interact with each other in the real world.

“This kind of technology could be used to see how communities respond to sociologically relevant events like a terrorist attack, a basketball victory, or extreme weather—all things that seem to pull people together,” Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business who was not involved in the study, told Wired. “If you’re tracking people over time, it would be interesting to see if people do more nice things for each other, if they’re more trusting and cooperative, when the local team wins. If there’s a threat, does everyone band together, or do people band together along ethnic lines or lines of similarity?”

The paper was published on Sept. 12 in the journal Science.

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